This entrepreneur turned sweet potatoes into a growing food brand

Jolenta Joseph with a selection of Sanavita’s products.

The founder of Sanavita explains how she spotted a gap in the market for nutritious foods in Tanzania.

While studying for a BSc in human nutrition at Sokoine University of Agriculture, Jolenta Joseph was looking for a business idea that would help reduce rampant malnutrition among vulnerable communities in Tanzania. “I really wanted to understand the exact problems that caused malnutrition but I didn’t know where to start,” she says.

A job she landed in 2017 provided a starting point for Joseph. “The nutrition awareness program I was involved in helped me understand how agriculture could help people come out of malnutrition. I talked to farmers and began to understand the challenges they were facing in producing and marketing healthy crops. ”

One thing became clear: the farmers in the rural areas needed awareness on what exactly to produce whereas the townspeople needed nutrient-rich, tasty products that they could not grow in the towns. A business that would bridge this gap between farmers and buyers was the next logical step.

Creating the company

The entrepreneur created Sanavita in 2019, an agribusiness company that processes biofortified crops to create various edible products. The first product her enterprise dealt with was orange-fleshed sweet potatoes – a special type of biofortified sweet potato that contains high levels of beta-carotene. “I would take sweet potatoes on credit from farmers in rural areas and sell them in towns,” she recalls.

As her market grew, she started to interact with different categories of consumers and saw a way to add even more value to the product. “Some of the consumers wanted processed products that could stay for long. I therefore devised a way to dry the sweet potato using solar energy while retaining their nutrients and then milling them to produce a nutritious composite flour which I sold to food processors. ” Joseph didn’t have a brand at the time but supplied her wholesale products to other companies.

Her next step was to design other nutrient-rich products to be sold alongside the sweet potato flour which had been further improved by adding rice and pumpkin seed powder to it.

At around that time, the Ministry of Agriculture released a biofortified maize seed and Jolenta asked the farmers she was working with to grow it. She then improved the maize powder by adding cassava to flavor it. She also designed a biscuit by mixing sweet potato puree with iron beans and cashew nuts. These products would eventually be incorporated into the Sanavita brand and over the following years the company was able to boost its production significantly.

“When the business started, we worked with 10 smallholder farmers who supplied us with between 200kg to 500kg of sweet potato every month. The number has since grown a hundredfold and we now receive up to four tons of sweet potato every month from 1,000 farmers, ”she says.

Target market

Pregnant women, lactating mothers and children form Sanavita’s primary target groups because the majority of people who suffer from iron and vitamin A deficiency are women and children. According to government statistics, chronic malnutrition (stunting) affects 34% of children below the age of five in Tanzania. “Over 60% of Tanzanians consume staple crops and our strategy is to engage rural farmers in the production of these staple biofortified crops,” says Joseph.

Sanavita’s main markets are in Morogoro, Dar es Salaam and the capital city of Dodoma. The products are sold through local channels like supermarkets, shops and local markets. The company faces stiff competition from food processors who make porridge flour. But the key selling point, she says, is to focus on the quality of Sanavita’s products.

“We carefully select our ingredients to ensure nutritionally balanced products. We also produce at a certified place and carefully observe food protocol, safety and hygiene, ”says Joseph. To guarantee high retention of beta-carotene in the sweet potato, the company dries its raw materials in a dryer. Laboratory analyzes on all value-added products are also conducted to ensure food safety and check optimum nutrition compositions.

Financing the business

The business continues to finance itself by reinvesting profits made. It has also received support from various stakeholders and organizations such as the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

The support Sanavita has received helped it acquire its own machinery. It is hoping to move away from using the milling machines at the agricultural incubation center of Sokoine University. Joesph’s plan is to gradually build her own certified factory and increase production capacity. “Once we establish our site, we will work to double our revenues and expand at home and abroad. We also plan to approach schools to see if we can supply them with porridge flour, ”she says.

Joseph sees a bright future for Tanzania’s healthy food industry. “Nutrition awareness is widespread. More people are health-conscious, they understand the value of nutritious products and are willing to pay more for them. Customers are also going for well-packed and well-prepared products. ”

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